Monday, May 16, 2016

AudioGate — CT Judicial Branch Bait and Switch

There was an interesting, but somewhat disturbing news program published online over the weekend by American News & Information Services, Inc. (Harwinton, CT). This small media company covers a variety of legal, political, and government-related news topics under a host of different names or brands. In this case, it was a 2-hour Saturday afternoon episode of their flagship Summary Judgment Talkshow that caught our attention.

In their YouTube broadcast, show hosts Ed Peruta (of Peruta v. County of San Diego fame) and Atty. Rachel Baird kick off a discussion with guest Dan Lynch about a range of topics relating to the Connecticut Judicial Branch and access to the courts. Lynch is a self-represented litigant who, after nearly 8 years of pursuing a variety of claims, was just granted permission to sue the State of Connecticut with a waiver of sovereign immunity in a rare reversal by the General Assembly. 

Dan Lynch appears as guest on 'Summary Judgment' with hosts Atty. Rachel M. Baird (left) and Ed Peruta 

Among the more interesting topics discussed, Lynch notes how the Judicial Branch petitioned the Connecticut Legislature during the 2012 Legislative Session for support of legislation which would enable them to increase certain court filing fees. The bill in question was Raised H.B. No. 5388, titled somewhat cleverly, "AN ACT CONCERNING COURT FEES AND THE DELIVERY OF LEGAL SERVICES TO THE POOR." Now, seriously, especially in an election year, who wants to be known for voting NO on such a magnanimous piece of legislation?

The controversial part, however, comes in the details. As part of this bill, if passed, the Judicial Branch would increase the filing fees for a variety of things with 60% going to support legal services for the poor, but the remaining 40% going into a Judicial Branch technology fund for certain important initiatives, most of which were positioned as necessary to respond to the growing number of self-represented litigants appearing in state courts. The most notable of the new technology services promised as part of this legislation, the Chief Court Administrator at that time, Judge Barbara Quinn, testified before the Judiciary Committee, saying:

"If the funding is provided through passage of this bill, it will be used for the following purposes:  Provide attorneys with nearly instantaneous 24-hour access to digital audio recordings of court hearings and trials on a daily basis, so that they can review a day’s testimony from their own computer, without the expense or delay of an official transcript." 

Now, we'd be inclined to believe the word of a Chief Court Administrator, right? Well, it gets better. AFTER the legislation passed into law, Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers lauded the passage at the 2012 Annual Judges Meeting, reinforcing the intent to use the funds to deliver audio recordings as promised. Her full presentation can be viewed online, but the relevant portion reads as follows:

"Finally, legislation passed this session increased certain court fees to provide funds for the Branch’s technology revolving fund. Having a steady reliable funding source for technology will enable us to plan and implement many technology projects, most notably, the expansion of digital audio recording to all of our courtrooms. This will enable the Branch to make audio recordings of proceedings available to the bar and public on the day they are recorded and, ultimately reduce the time it takes to produce a transcript and accelerate the appeal process."

SO, the big question now being asked is a lot like the one posed by Clara Peller in the 1984 award-winning commercials for the Wendy's restaurant chain - "Where's the Beef?"
Only, in our case, the question is "Where's the Audio?"

It seems that the Branch made their pitch, convinced lawmakers to vote for increased fees based on a promised delivery of a tangible service with real benefits to citizens of Connecticut, but then they failed to live up to their end of the bargain. Not only have four years gone by without audio recordings being made available, but in certain instances the Branch has even fought against providing these services to individuals making an administrative request for audio through the Americans with Disabilities Act.